Writing Tips from Professor Alves

The thesis statement

Other writing tips:

Despite what high school English teachers may say, there is no single formula for a successful paper, nor will we be looking for one in this class. The most important characteristics of a good paper include a structure in which ideas are logically connected and easy to follow; clear and precise communication; and distinct points that all contribute to the overall purpose of the paper.

Sometimes the hardest step is deciding exactly what your paper will be about. Some writers describe this concise description as a thesis. However, this term is not used to imply that all papers must be persuasive in intent (at least in the strictest sense of the term). You should be able to state in a sentence what exactly the paper is about. Some writing teachers encourage students to come up with a title first, because if you can't state what the paper is about in a concise title, you should perhaps rethink the thesis.

  • A thesis states a purpose, not just a topic:

  •  
    • Less effective:

    • Child-like aspects of proto-modernist art.
       
    • More effective:

    • Certain artists in France before World War I reacted against the overblown pretensions of romanticism by cultivating child-like innocence in their works.
       
    • Less effective:

    • This paper is a comparison of selected poems of Alfred Jarry and Guillaume Apollinaire.
       
    • More effective:

    • A comparison of the poetry of Jarry and Apollinaire will show that, while Jarry's verse was more talented and revolutionary, Apollinaire's better prefigured certain modernist innovations.

  • A thesis should not be a question:

  •  
    • Less effective:

    • How did the First World War affect the arts in France?
       
    • More effective:

    • The First World War turned France's incipient modernism into artistic anarchism, reflecting the madness of society.

  • A thesis should not state the obvious. For the purposes of this class, it should be disputable. That is, no one wants to read a paper consisting entirely of facts or statements no one would ever dispute. Creative and well-supported interpretations are much more interesting to read:

  •  
    • Less effective:

    • Alfred Jarry's works were very controversial.
       
    • More effective:

    • In the works of Alfred Jarry, the controversy and confrontation become as much a part of the art as conventional literary techniques.

  • A thesis should be a single, distinct idea:

  •  
    • Less effective:

    • The dream-like aspects of Rousseau's paintings influenced de Chirico, and their juxtaposition of perspectives influenced Picasso.
       
    • More effective:

    • The dream-like aspects of Rousseau's paintings deeply influenced de Chirico and set the stage for surrealism.
       
    • Or:

    • The juxtaposition of perspectives in Rousseau's paintings influenced Picasso and set the stage for cubism.

  • A thesis should state not only what you are going to conclude, but how you will show it.

  •  
    • Less effective:

    • Guillaume Apollinaire influenced Ezra Pound.
       
    • More effective:

    • Guillaume Apollinaire influenced Ezra Pound through his startling juxtapositions of images, his lack of punctuation, and his metrical freedom.

  • Most importantly, make sure the thesis is PRECISE AND FOCUSED:

  •  
    • Not effective (unless you're going to write a book):

    • The music of Erik Satie was revolutionary.
       
    • More effective:

    • The early music of Erik Satie already showed remarkable reactions against romanticism.
       
    • Even more effective:

    • The early music of Erik Satie already showed remarkable reactions against Wagnerism in its harmonies, scope, and influences from early and popular music.
Your choice of thesis will determine evidence you need to present as well as the appropriateness of points that follow. For example, consider this thesis: "Satie's simplicity and startling juxtapositions were fundamental influences on the music of Darius Milhaud." Because the writer has stated that influences exist, it becomes incumbent upon her not only to give examples of musical similarities, but to show historical evidence that Milhaud actually knew Satie's music and was influenced by it.

However, if the thesis states, "Satie's simplicity and startling juxtapositions effectively prefigured the early neoclassical works of Stravinsky," then it's no longer necessary to establish a causal relationship, merely one of time. Of course, a more vague wording of a thesis does not make up for failures of research, but any claim you make that is not an obvious fact, including opinion, criticism, and interpretation, needs to be backed up by a) factual evidence, b) an example, or c) a citation.

Sometimes it will take several tries and a lot of research before you formulate a thesis that precisely states what you intend to communicate and have evidence for. It is, at times, helpful to "write your way to an idea," but that's only a first step, not what you turn in! If your thesis does not fulfill the suggestions above, it may reveal shortcomings in your concepts for your paper. You should be grateful to have found such shortcomings, because that realization can start you down a much more fruitful path.